I’m in my happy place when I’m with a good book on writerly devices, and I love to experiment with what I have learnt and attempt to incorporate that into whatever I’m working on, just for the fun of it, but there is a downside to this, I can’t unknow things that I have learnt. I can’t write and ignore great advice, can I?
I recently read The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-Time Novelists Wind Up With Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists, an essay by Frederick Reiken. I definitely don’t feel like I have an uninteresting protagonist in The Neighbour, after all, people either love him or hate him, no in between, but it’s an element of writing that I don’t think I have thought about.
Reiken states that a writer will often fail to distinguish between, and keep separate, the author, the narrator, and the protagonist.
Understanding this separation is easier with first person narrative, there is the author, there is the narrator who is a character separate from the author, and there are characters in the story. In regard to third person narratives it becomes more complex. Reiken refers to psychic distance between a narrator and character- an idea put forward first by John Gardener. The division between author, narrator, and character is much more complex and there you get more into an author’s own style and the varying degrees of psychic distance, the idea of which requires more space and thought than I can dedicate here, but I urge you to seek out this article and give it a close read. Perhaps I might tease it out in another post soon.
I’m pleased to say (if you’ve read The Neighbour you’ll understand why I’m pleased :)) that I went to great lengths, many many drafts, to create a character that had nothing of me, the author, in him and the style is more what is called Free Indirect Discourse. Free Indirect Discourse has the narrator reporting the thoughts and dialogue of the character. The narrator reports all that the character does, sees and feels almost as if the narrator is the character, except she is still that third person. I feel this style gives the reader more access to the thoughts and feelings of the character and is a more engaging read.
If you are a fan of writing this way you are in good company, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen were all fans of Free Indirect Discourse. But this idea of the Author-Narrator-Character Merge is an element of writing that will forever be on my mind when I’m writing, I can’t unknow it!
I recently finished reading Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson. It’s so good to read intelligence and wit bound in one place. In the middle of a breakup scene, she is funny, descriptive, uncomfortable and sad:
I nodded, twisting the cake fork between my fingers, pushing my knees against the underside of the doll’s house table. Nothing was in proportion. My voice seemed too loud, Jacqueline too small, the woman serving donuts with mechanical efficiency parked her bosom on the glass counter and threatened to shatter it with mammary power. How she would skittle the chocolate eclairs and with a single plop drown her unwary customers in mock cream. My mother always said I’d come to a sticky end.
Snatching her hand, he pulled her along with him, and they ran until they reached a side street muffled and sweet with trees. As they leaned together, panting, he put into her hand a bunch of violets, and she knew, quite as though she’d seen it done, that they were stolen. Summer that is shade and moss traced itself in the veins of the violet leaves, and she crushed their coolness against her check. (p.81)
I have recently written about violets, and violets that have poignant reason for being in the book, and this little violet moment in Truman Capote’s Summer Crossing is a reminder that I have missed an opportunity to slow the moment down, and bring attention to what is going on in the minds of characters – I think I might now go back to it and go a little deeper.
Up until these sentences quoted below from the book, there has been mostly action and words that move the story on, and then suddenly there are these descriptive sentences, waxing and waning and slowing down, and you just know that there is something coming, a point in the book in which everything changes, and sure enough it does. With one short sentence (that I haven’t copied here) the lives of the characters change, and without all this slowing down and going deeper that comes just prior, I think the reader would feel like it had all come way too suddenly. As it is, it’s a lovely sliding into the moment, the reader eases into it, and then, there it is, the moment we waited for. ‘…heat’s stale breath yawned in their faces…’ too good.
It was wilting out on Lexington Avenue, and especially so since they’d just left an air-conditioned theatre; with every step heat’s stale breath yawned in their faces. Starless nightfall closed down like a coffin lid, and the avenue, with its newsstands of disaster and flickering, fly buzz sounds of neon, seemed an elongated, stagnant corpse.
A roar from underground echoed through her, for she was standing on top of a subway grating: deep in the hollows below she could hear a screeching of iron wheels, and then, nearer by, there came a fiercer noise: car horns clashed, fenders bumped, tires careened! And she whirled around to see a driver cursing Clyde, who was jayhopping across the street as fast as his legs would go. (p.80)
I’m reading A Christina Stead Reader, by Jean B Read, and note the long, rhythmic sentences that give the sense of riding waves into a sandy romantic beach.
Henry had discovered long ago that his fish were temperamental. On certain days, quite apart from the occasional sad twinges lent them by soot, fog or nightfall, the fish appeared to change colour, hourly, and even momently, due to secret and invisible movements of the water, or its animalculae, or to the filtration of light through the plankton, or to the thoughts of those finned images themselves. Sometimes, their bars and mottlings, their scars, freckles and wine marks would glow and burn, redden, blacken, glower: sometimes, the fish would turn paler and the outlines of their beauties fade.
If you know me well, you’ll know that there’s only one thing I love more than reading and writing, and that’s talking about reading and writing. Last month (May) I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the fantastic Queenscliff Literary Festival, and I can’t say enough how wonderful the event was. Our chairperson, Alice Barker, managed our event expertly and talentedly, having clearly read both my, and my fellow author, Emily Bitto’s, books – which is not always the case at events. Alice put excellent questions to us that allowed fantastic and vigorous discussion on character, and setting, theme, the act of writing, and publishing. As a result, the audience was keen to get involved and also put forward great questions during the panel with follow-up conversations during the signings that were engaging and fun.
The Queenscliff Literary Festival is a little different to other festivals in that it runs only on weekends and runs across every weekend in May. So although authors don’t get an opportunity to spend time with all authors, the events are not crammed in. Often there isn’t enough time between events at festivals, but at Queenscliff authors aren’t hurried out the door to make room for the next panel, but given as much time as is desired for chat between authors and readers alike. And can I side-step for a moment and go a little gaga over the festival setting. Do you know Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale towns? It’s a gorgeous place: beaches, cafes, art, lighthouses, lookouts, peers, ferry across to Sorrento with dolphins alongside! It’s a gorgeous place. It’s a rare thing to be given the opportunity to indulge in books and words in such a lovely setting with people just as enthusiastic about literature as I am, with an engaged and generous crowd, host and bookseller. Thank you to The Bookshop at Queenscliff, Marylou Gilbert and Alice Barker.